Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Annunciation of the blessed Virgin Mary

Isaiah 7:10-15
Luke 1:26-38

It is no accident that today's Collect summarizes the entire Gospel, both with its glorious history of Christ's saving acts, and with our sure and certain hope for the promise of the future.

WE beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an Angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

A few years ago, my friend and fellow editor of Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, Dr. William J. Tighe, professor of History at Muhlenberg College, presented in the magazine a thesis brand new to many. Whereas it has been assumed for a long time that Christmas is on December 25th, because it borrows the date of a pagan festival, the very opposite is true. The date was chosen by the Roman emperor to compete with the Christian holy day, the Feast of the Nativity. Tighe writes:

As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun.

He goes on to explain the origin for the Christian date:

Second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29 [AD]...At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth.

Therefore, we have a triangle with points in succession: Good Friday-Annunciation-Nativity. That is, the day of his atoning death for the sins of the world, pointing back to the day of his conception (today's Feast), then leading to a day in which they came to celebrate his birth. It does not matter that these dates are likely not to be historically accurate; they represent three major events in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that remain forever linked in the mind of his Church: Good Friday, Annunciation and Christmas. Indeed, if we see Good Friday as the first part of the Christian Passover, which includes the Resurrection and our whole liberation from sin and death accomplished by Christ's victory on the cross and his triumphal rising on the third day, this triangle of dates fits well with the brief but penetrating summary of the Collect. And, it cannot fail to be sufficient pledge to us that God intends good for us, even everlasting life as we enter fully into Christ's resurrection life on the day when he will come again.

It has been suggested, with irony, tongue in cheek, that the Incarnation is the "Anglican heresy." That is, based on what theology students are taught as a basic point: That over-emphasis of any single point of doctrine causes imbalance, and therefore neglect of other points of doctrine, resulting in distortion of the truth so severe that it becomes heresy. And, indeed if any single point of doctrine comes across as the one most strongly emphasized by authentic Anglican teaching, it is the Incarnation of the Word: Nonetheless, we must insist that the Incarnation and the Trinity are two points of doctrine that, by their nature, cannot be over-emphasized. It is impossible to say too much about the Incarnation; and frankly, impossible on a human level to say enough about it, ever.

Where would we be without this simple fact? "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." (John 1:14) The whole opening of John's Gospel is about the Trinity and about the Incarnation. When it opens, we hear the Name God, and we hear it three times:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.

I do not know why, in so many dramatic and musical readings of this opening, edited out is the third mention of the name, "God." It is no redundency: Neither the Apostle Saint John nor the Holy Spirit need the correction of editors who simply fail to hear the truth. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God [the Father], and the Word was God [the Son]. The same was in the beginning with God [the Holy Spirit]."

And we learn that this Person (ὑπόστασις) called the Word (λόγος) has both made and given life to the world and all mankind. Then we learn that this Person, the Word who is with God, who is God, and who is from the beginning with God (that is, he who who is eternally begotten of the Father as the Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father-"from the beginning") was made flesh. As the Greek text says in the original, he pitched his tent (or his tabernacle) among us. Or, as the King James Bible translated it:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

So we must ask this question:

What was God's purpose in making man? None other than what we see at the end of the Book of Revelation, foretelling the destiny of the saints when the Redemption will have been completed.

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. (Rev. 21:3)

God made the human race to manifest his glory among us, and that is the essence of the Divine plan and his great love for a creature made as the icon of God, for "God created man in his own image." (Gen. 1:27) And this was very good. But, we know that our race fell into sin and death, all mankind thus plunged into death by sin as the due reward of being "in Adam." Therefore, the manifestation of God's glory among us as a human being took on emergency measures. So, the Son came into the world to bear the cross and die to take away sin, then to rise to immortality as the new and everlasting man, thus to conquer death.

As we saw in the portion read for this Feast from the Gospel of Luke, God Almighty sent his Angel Gabriel to announce the Divine will to a virgin whose purity reflected the faith of her father Abraham She obeyed with such courage as faith alone produces in the human heart. She understood that she would conceive as a virgin, that it would be a miracle; for so the angel had explained in unmistakable and clear language (as the text plainly says). But, knowing it would be a miracle did not remove the need for her courage; for what was presented was no easy path, certainly not easy by any estimation.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

This was the faith of Abraham, expressed perfectly in a purified and seasoned people, from the mouth of Israel's finest, the pure virgin mother. She now bore in her womb the conceived God, the embryo, the fetus, the baby; the Word made flesh sanctifying even the most helpless and earliest stages of human life, which human life deserves protection at every stage; (lest failing to protect the helpless ones in the womb, who share this with Christ himself who also was there, we hear it said to any of us: "Verily I say unto you, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels...Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me'"- Matt. 25:41 ).

What happened at that moment of Christ's conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother? Did he diminish his own glory and Godhead? Did he distill it down so as to fit in a human container? Did he leave behind the fullness of Divine Nature? Not at all. As St. Athanasius put it in The Incarnation of the Word of God :

The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvellous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world...His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time-this is the wonder-as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it. Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling, "Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth." (1 Peter 2. 22) 3.17

Let me summarize his words thus: While Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, walked the earth as a man, he filled the heavens as God.

And, he gives us the promise of glorification in him; as St. Peter wrote:

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (II Pet. 1:2-4)

The drop that fell was human nature, and the ocean that it entered was Divinity. Christ did not lower himself; rather he raised us. He did not diminish himself; rather he made us into children of his Father. He took into his proper, uncreated and eternal Person, an alien, created and temporal nature. Properly, he is from everlasting to everlasting God, eternally begotten of his Father. He is God of God, Light of Light, very God of Very God, begotten not made; Being of homoousioun, that is, of One substance with the Father, and through whom all things were made..

He took human nature into his Godhead.

He took created nature into his uncreated Person.

He took time into his Eternity.

He gave back to us recreated, justified, redeemed, sanctified, and (at his coming again) immortal unending life.

No wonder, as we are told by St. John, the spirit of Antichrist refuses to confess this glorious doctrine (I John 4:1f). That spirit will never confess that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh," and will always deny either his Divine Nature as God the Son, or deny his full human nature. The spirit of error cannot deceive us once we know that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh; for then we can hear the whole Gospel with the fullness of this complete truth for us.

WE beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an Angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Anonymous said...

Dear Fr Hart,
You write;
'mankind - plunged into death by sin as the due reward of being "in Adam."
Could you please explain the fact that all living creatures are subject to death, when, presumably, many have no concept of sin.
Thank you.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The revelation of scripture reveals only that the human race became mortal through sin. About animals, we cannot say. Maybe it has to do with man's dominion, and human sin subjecting those creatures under that dominion to mortality. The fossil record may be against that idea, however. But, if we look at the Fall described in Genesis as a kind of parable, we have room to consider many possibilities and to speculate on mysteries not yet solved.

What is clearly revealed, however, is this: Man is subject to death because of sin.

Anonymous said...

Who is the painting at the top of the post by? It is haunting, and I might like to get a print/reproduction if they are available. Forgive my ignorance; my taste in art generally runs to the modern end of the spectrum.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I have been looking for the artist's name, and none of the links to the picture (so far) have it. I see the influence of Rembrandt in the lighting.

amo said...

The artist is Henry Ossawa Tanner (USA, 1859-1937).

Anonymous said...

Thank you!


Hugh McCann said...

Jesus is the Hero; that's why Anglicans point to him,
and not his mother on Dec. 25, Feb. 2 & Mar. 25,
and do not get so excited on Dec. 8, Sept. 8, or Aug. 15

Hugh McCann said...

"the right Faith is, that we believe and confess : that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds : and Man of the substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God and perfect Man : of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead : and inferior to the Father, as touching his manhood;
Who, although he be God and Man : yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh : but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether; not by confusion of Substance : but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man : so God and Man is one Christ;"